Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Northwest Health Director Dr. Gary Voccio said he anticipates COVID-19 vaccinations to begin in the region as early as next month.
“We’ve had meetings about it, seminars and information sent to us already for rolling this out through public health and also private partners,” he told The Daily Tribune News.
Voccio said that “tier 1” personnel — namely, first responders and emergency room physicians — could be in line to receive the vaccinations by mid-to-late December.
He said the most likely vaccines to be used would be the messenger RNA (mRNA)-based candidates from Pfizer and Moderna.
“They’re in phase 3 and they’re getting emergency-use authorization,” Voccio said. “The profiles have been in place since the MERS and SARS epidemics.”
Such vaccines, he said, are not egg- or culture-based.
“This is a simple, chemical-based type of vaccine,” he said. “They catalyze these things in a test tube or a tank, put the chemicals together and make a vaccine — they’re pretty safe, in my opinion, from what I’ve been reading.”
As for how the vaccines work, Voccio said the mRNA prompts the body to produce a spike protein — which, in turn, produces new antibodies. He described such as a “dual response,” which not only builds up antibodies but also produces memory T cells, which may help individuals fend off the virus later on.
And that component, Voccio said, opens up “a whole new ballgame” when it comes to combatting COVID-19.
“Not only do you get an immunoglobulin response, which is what we’re looking for against this spike protein,” he said, “but you also get a memory T cell response to produce immunoglobulins later.”
At this point, Voccio said he expects such vaccines to be mass produced by spring 2021.
The document outlines a prioritization chain for vaccine recipients, with “tier 2” described as “long-term care facilities and other vulnerable populations” and “tier 3” described as the general public.
“Provider sites and vaccine shipments will be prioritized according to the populations those providers serve and the key populations who have been prioritized for the vaccination effort,” the DPH document reads. “Critical populations will be prioritized using a four-phased approach based on their level of risk for exposure to or complications from the disease.”
Voccio said at least 80 partners are in place to help distribute and administer the COVID-19 vaccines throughout Georgia.
The DPH document also calls for the creation of a COVID-19 Health Equity Team, which is tasked with addressing “inequities exacerbated by COVID-19” via engagements with community-based organizations (CBOs.)
“The DPH will engage and work closely with CBOs to identify the population they serve and collect current data on the specified population,” the document reads. “Additionally, some CBOs have begun utilizing neighborhood or geographic information systems (NIS or GIS) to locate their target population.”
As of Nov. 20, the DPH reports 99 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Bartow County, alongside six fatalities in which the coronavirus is categorized as a "probable" factor.
The number of COVID-19 cases aren’t just increasing in Bartow County, Voccio said, but throughout the 10-county northwest DPH region.
As of Friday morning, he said Cartersville Medical Center had about 25 COVID-19 patients. The two hospitals in Rome, he said, came close to about 40 cases each while the hospital in Hiram had a caseload trending well into the 30s.
He said he expects those numbers to continue to increase heading into 2021.
“Bartow County has a positive rate of about 14%, Floyd County has about a 14% positive rate, all of the counties in northwest Georgia have 10% or greater in case numbers,” he said.
What’s especially concerning, he said, is the possibility of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis running headlong into a severe flu season.
“We have possibly one reported case of flu in northwest Georgia, it’s not been confirmed,” Voccio said. “Both viruses can kill you, both can require hospitalization and intensive care stays and it certainly would overwhelm and certainly overburden our health care system.”
He said the toll of a “twindemic” on local health care providers could be drastic.
“If there is a fortunate thing about a flu, is that there are flu treatments available for outpatient flu therapy,” he said. “Only inpatient therapy for COVID-19 is available, and we don’t want to overburden our health care system with either one, and that’s what’s disheartening about our increasing numbers of COVID — it’s primarily still non-pharmaceutical intervention.”
Voccio said he’s not worried about regional hospitals having enough personal protective equipment or ventilators. However, he said he is worried about the twindemic’s possible impacts on health care workers.
“They have plenty of capacity now,” he said. “The big concern for administration of all hospitals is enough personnel — enough nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists to meet the demands. It’s the people that we may not have enough of.”
As for the catalysts for the uptick in COVID-19 spread throughout the region, Voccio said a single cause could not be identified.
“We’re seeing high numbers or outbreaks in long-term care facilities, businesses, doctors offices, courthouses,” he said. “If you ask me if it’s one thing in particular, no. Is it everywhere? Yes.”
From schools to jails to nursing homes, Voccio said northwest Georgia is in the grips of “a widespread community transmission in all venues.”
And that could get worse, he said, considering the holidays are right around the corner.
“We’re recommending small groups, small family gatherings, outside if it’s a good weather day,” he said.
Voccio encouraged Georgians to remain vigilant about COVID-19, especially considering that 30% to 50% of the carriers of the virus may be asymptomatic.
“People are fatigued and tired, and it’s difficult to always wear a mask and physically distance,” he said. “But we realize that we have a long way to go — unfortunately, we may see things get worse before it gets better.”
Voccio said it is too early to determine how a presidential administration change could impact federal and state efforts to address COVID-19.
“I can’t make a comment on that,” he said. “We’re just going to have to see what the new secretary of health and human services says or what the president is going to say."
Nor does Voccio have any details on how much 2021 DPH funding may be allocated for COVID-19 response.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what the governor and the office of planning and budget has for us,” he said. “I don’t have any insight into that at all.”